History and philosophy, Mental health

Looking back: Rewriting the rest cure in The Secret Garden

Anne Stiles discovers a fascinating commentary on mind and body in illness in the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett

18 March 2013

British-born author Frances Hodgson Burnett, who later settled in the United States, is best known for children’s classics like A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911). During her lifetime, Burnett wrote over 50 novels for both adults and children and became the wealthiest woman writer of her day. Because of her reputation as a writer of juvenile fiction, however, modern readers tend to overlook Burnett’s incisive commentary on social issues, including medical controversies. This social commentary surfaces in fictions such as The Secret Garden, which can be read as a feminist, Christian Science revision of Silas Weir Mitchell’s rest cure.

The rest cure was the standard treatment for female invalids at the fin de siècle, involving bed rest, social isolation, and force-feeding. Invented in the 1870s by Mitchell, a Philadelphia neurologist, the cure found its way to Britain later in the century. While the rest cure was used to treat a variety of ailments, the typical patient was an upper-middle-class woman suffering from hysteria or neurasthenia, a 19th-century term for ‘nerve weakness’ that encompassed depression, anxiety, migraines, and other symptoms. Burnett herself underwent more than one inpatient treatment for her recurring bouts of insomnia and depression. These treatments, which involved ‘lengthy periods of bed rest’, probably resembled Mitchell’s popular rest cure, or some variant thereof (Gerzina, 2004, p.51). These largely unsuccessful cures may have contributed to Burnett’s lifelong distrust of mainstream medicine.

Instead of openly rebelling against the methods of doctors like Mitchell, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman famously did in her short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), Burnett sought solace in faith-healing movements like Christian Science and its offshoot, New Thought. Christian Science teaches that reality is spiritual in nature, and that evil – including sin, disease and death – is an illusion. Founder Mary Baker Eddy ‘discovered’ this truth when she spontaneously recovered from a severe injury in 1866. New Thought was a related movement that likewise emphasised the power of the mind to cure disease, but also incorporated elements of Spiritualism and Theosophy. Christian Science particularly appealed to women, who made up 72 per cent of its members in 1906 (Schoepflin, 2003, p.34). Women were drawn to the faith’s charismatic female leader and her vision of an androgynous ‘Father-Mother God’ (Eddy, 1875/2000, p.16). Many women built careers as professional Christian Science healers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, establishing their mind-healing services as an alternative to mainstream medicine.

During these same decades, Burnett was searching for spiritual meaning and relief from her nervous ailments. Following a nervous breakdown in 1884, Burnett received treatment from one of Eddy’s students in Boston. She also bought and read Eddy’s Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures (1875), meanwhile attending Christian Science church services and testimony meetings (Burnett, 1927, p.377). While mind-healing afforded Burnett some temporary relief, she never officially became a Christian Scientist. But she gained a new perspective on suffering, coming to view medical symptoms as ephemeral and death as an illusion. These views sustained Burnett during her episodes of depression, and after the untimely death of her eldest son Lionel in 1890. Burnett explained to her younger son, Vivian, that ‘While I could not call myself a Christian Scientist, I believe in its principle because it is the exposition of the pure Christ-spirit applied to the needs of today’ (Gerzina, 2004, p.241). Taking this message to heart, Vivian and his wife and children would later become Christian Scientists.

Elements of Christian Science and New Thought surface in at least two of Burnett’s novels, The Dawn of a To-morrow (1906) and The Secret Garden. Both feature female healers who cure neurasthenic males by teaching them the power of positive thinking. Burnett completed these two novels in the wake of her most serious bout of depression, which followed the failure of her second marriage in 1901. This episode drove the author to seek ‘mental and physical rest’ at Riverview Sanitarium in Fishkill Landing, New York (‘Authoress in a sanitarium’, 1902).

While The Dawn of a To-morrow is virtually unknown today, it was one of Burnett’s most popular works during her lifetime. The protagonist, Sir Oliver Holt, is a wealthy English businessman who becomes seriously depressed and contemplates suicide. He is saved from this drastic step by a cheerful band of beggars and thieves, including a former music hall dancer with a redemptive creed. She explains to Holt that God is merciful and kind; that things are never as bad as they seem; and that death does not exist. Interestingly, when this novel was adapted for the stage, some viewers incorrectly labeled the author a Christian Scientist. She responded, ‘thank goodness, I am not a scientist of any kind’ (Burnett, 1909, p.249).

Unlike The Dawn of a To-morrow, Burnett’s The Secret Garden remains a staple of juvenile fiction. But few modern readers recognise the novel’s Christian Science undertones, which were obvious to readers in 1911, or its implicit critique of the rest cure. While The Secret Garden contains elements of Christianity, nature worship, paganism and other creeds, Vivian Burnett writes that the novel was ‘generally credited with being a Christian Science book’ when it first appeared (1927, p.377). One senses this in early reviews of the novel, which emphasise the role of mental healing and New Thought in the story.

In fact, child protagonist Mary Lennox resembles Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy in some respects. At the beginning of the novel, Mary Lennox is an orphaned invalid who ‘has always been ill in one way or another’ (Burnett, 1911/2006, p.3). When she comes to live with her uncle and cousin at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, Mary gradually begins to heal herself and then learns to cure others, much as Eddy did in the late 1860s and 70s. Mary’s recovery involves strenuous outdoor exercise and gardening, as she begins to cultivate her uncle’s abandoned rose garden.  

Once she recovers, Mary helps rehabilitate her cousin Colin, a bedridden invalid every bit as querulous as Mitchell’s hysterical female patients. Mary also indirectly helps to cure Colin’s father, the hunch-backed recluse Archibald Craven, who never recovered from the death of his wife 10 years before. Neither father nor son has been helped by their inept family doctor, who encourages patients to dwell on their symptoms and prognoses. Colin, for instance, has been persuaded that ‘if I live I may be a hunchback, but I shan’t live’ (Burnett, 1911/2006, 74). Once Mary helps Colin to abandon these false beliefs, he begins enjoying good health. Colin’s case seemingly proves Eddy’s teaching that illness stems from ‘fear of the disease and from the image brought before the mind’ rather than physical causes (Eddy, 1875/2000, p.196).

Accordingly, Colin’s cure consists in behaving as if he were not sick. Mary encourages him to visit the rose garden, where Colin overcomes his previous fear of the outdoors and discovers that his legs and back are perfectly well. Gradually he begins walking, exercising, and gardening with the help of Mary and her friend Dickon. The family doctor, shocked by this change in his patient, reminds Colin that he ‘must not forget that he was ill; he must not forget that he was very easily tired’ (Burnett, 1911/2006, p.153). But Colin shrewdly realises that his cure consists in doing the opposite: ‘[h]e had made himself believe that he was going to get well, which was really more than half the battle’ (Burnett, 1911/2006, p.143). Meanwhile, Archibald Craven learns to accept the death of his wife by revisiting the secret garden she had once loved. In the forgotten rose garden lovingly tended by his son and niece, Craven realises for the first time that Colin is neither crippled nor doomed to an early death.

By showing a young female healer curing hysterical males, Burnett inverted the gender politics of the rest cure. She also contradicted some of its key principles. Instead of benefiting from continuous bed rest and isolation, Colin languishes without exercise and social contact. Established medical authority has nothing positive to offer him, as the family doctor does him more harm than good. This chimes with Christian Science beliefs and with Burnett’s own attitude towards mainstream medicine. ‘Symptoms and doctors are rubbish’, Burnett wrote near the end of her life. ‘Doctors don’t know half as much as you do yourself if you are intelligent and self-controlled’ (Burnett, 1927, p.401).

Eccentric as she may seem, Burnett and her works exemplify a broader phenomenon occurring on both sides of the Atlantic at this time: educated women eschewing conventional medicine in favour of occult and faith healing movements. These included not only Christian Science, but also Spiritualism, Theosophy, and a host of lesser-known variants. From a modern scientific perspective, faith-healing movements like Christian Science may be said to harness the placebo effect by encouraging patients to believe in their own recovery (Harrington, 2008, p.135). The healing experienced as a result of such faith is real enough, though it may have more to do with connections between the mind and body than with any supernatural agency. So-called ‘faith cures’ can be most successful when the patient’s problems are more psychological than physical in nature, as is the case with Colin and his father.  

Although many men participated in alternative healing traditions at the turn of the 20th century, these movements had special importance for women, who were (then as now) underserved by the mainstream medical community. Christian Science in particular provided women with the opportunity to take medical treatment into their own hands, and even to become healers in their own right. The Secret Garden demonstrates quite vividly the appeal Christian Science and New Thought must have had for women seeking new cures for mental ills, along with a degree of autonomy in their medical decision making. By packaging her persuasive message about healing in a delightful children’s story, Burnett ensured that it would be heard and internalised by future generations.

Anne Stiles is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Saint Louis University
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Authoress in a sanitarium (1902, 10 April). New York Times, p.1.
Burnett, F.H. [1909]. Mrs. Burnett not a Christian Scientist. From the Chicago Post. Reprinted in Burnett (2006), pp.249–250.
Burnett, F.H. (2006). The secret garden (G.H. Gerzina, Ed.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1911)
Burnett, V. (1927). The romantick lady (Frances Hodgson Burnett): Life story of an imagination. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Eddy, M.B. (2000). Science and health, with key to the Scriptures. Boston, MA: The Writings of Mary Baker Eddy. (Original work published 1875)
Gerzina, G.H. (2004). Frances Hodgson Burnett: The unexpected life of the author of The Secret Garden. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Harrington, A. (2008). The cure within: A history of mind-body medicine. New York: Norton.
Schoepflin, R. (2003). Christian Science on trial: Religious healing in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.